Memory is messy. It’s unkind, unfair, and more often than not, memory fails us.
We count on it to tell us who we are and where we’ve been. We use it predict what’s next—as a foundation for projecting ourselves into the future and imagining where we’d like to be and what we’d like to accomplish in the coming week or month or year. Memory reminds us where we’ve failed, and we rely on it tell what we should work harder on in the future.
Memory helps us recall where we’ve succeeded, as well. It’s the basis for self-esteem, for how well we recollect our triumphs and who we credit for the good things that happen.
Given all of this, and given that we are in many ways what we remember, what does it say about us that we retain so few memories of our earliest childhoods? And what do our first memories tell us about who we were as kids, what our lives were like, to whom we were most attached and why?
Interestingly, my earliest memory is of Kimmy, my paternal grandmother, on the occasion of my sister Susan’s birth. (To read a post about Kimmy, click here.)
We are in a hospital waiting room. I’m standing on the floor, between Kimmy’s knees. I’m little—my tiny hands on her thighs. I don’t know if we are waiting while my mother is in labor, or waiting for Kimmy’s chance to visit my mom after the birth has already occurred.
I would have been nearly three—one month shy of my third birthday.
I don’t know how accurate this memory is. I don’t know if I ever actually waited with Kimmy in that room. I know memory is not always accurate.
What I do know, however, is that this is what I remember, what I recall having come first—the first in an endless series of recollections—the first that I retained—the first to surface from the deep-sea of who Kathy was. It’s a memory with buoyancy. It’s one that stands distinct from all the rest, from all that came before, a lighted place in time and space, floating on the face of otherwise deep, dark waters.
Is it a memory of my mother’s absence, of Kimmy’s presence, or of a sister soon to be? Is it one about separation, connection, or anticipation? Or is it all of these?
Obviously, I can never know for sure.
What I do know, however, is that this memory might tell me something about my grandmother’s role in my early life, something about her presence, her permanence, her being a bridge—a point of light.
It reminds of other early memories of Kimmy—of her playing Old Maids with me and Concentration—of being stretched out on the carpet in her living room, turning over square cards with pictures, looking for the matches—the things that went together.
I remember the grid they formed on the floor—a way of laying out the reality of how games were played and lives were led—of not knowing where the pairs were located, but confident that they were there and could be found, if only I remembered hard enough, well enough, accurately enough.
It’s interesting that Kimmy played a memory game with me—that what I recall is play that made me think, remember, find—a memory about matches. A memory about pairs.
Is this memory of playing Concentration, this memory about looking for mates, for twins—actually about my identical twin having been lost to me? Is the memory of Kimmy in the waiting room really about the anticipation of a sister to be born? Is it about a sister’s arrival for the first time or the hope, for me, of a twin sister’s return? (To read a post about my twin, click here.)
In other words, are these both really memories about what would have been my earliest memory, if only I remembered it—a memory of loss—the hope of return—a faith that my twin sister and I would be reconnected? Is this not so much a memory about being separate from my mother, or feeling close to Kimmy, or anticipating Susan’s arrival—but actually a memory much, much older? A memory of Marty, my identical twin—of the closeness we had shared in the placenta, my loss of her—alone in an incubator—my longing for her, one that I experienced as hope when I was promised another sister?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions about these particular memories.
I only know that memory is complex, not what we think it is, that the memory of one person, one place, one time, might really be a memory of someone else in a much more distant past—the as of yet undiscovered pair.
I only know that I will never know for sure.
I only know that memory is like that—often more about what’s missing than the thing that’s there. Memory is impossible to pin down, and memoirs are really more about a past that we will never understand.
Memoirs are about accepting this unknown. About accepting what we don’t remember—accepting that we will always remember much less about our past than we can actually recall. That there is more unknown than known—more darkness than light—more memory—less memory—both of these or neither—one left without the other.
I only know that memoirs tell the oldest and only story—one of connection—of loss—and moving on without the other—
—hoping for her return–her always-never arrival.
Note: If you are new to my blog, you might like to know that I am writing a memoir and blogging about growing up in an organized crime family. This post is part of that story. To read “Kids Make the Best Bookies,” click here. If you are interested in reading any of my protected posts, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or let me know in the comments below, and I will gladly share the password with you.